The far right’s appeal to women is getting stronger, and their tactics are working
Fascist groups all over Europe are making hay with a narrative that is insular, tribal, yet reassuring, with key messages like ‘fear of the other’ and using violence against women as a propaganda tool
Fascism vs feminism? On the surface, there’s no contest. At street level, the neo-fash, rooted in incel and MRA culture, appears the sworn enemy of women’s rights in any form.
At the theoretical level, up where Conservative think tanks and theologians operate, feminism is the arch-nemesis: part of an unholy triumvirate that, with gay marriage and everything gender non-conforming, is part of the plot to destroy society by undermining established gender roles and the traditional family.
They have nothing in common. And yet…
Let’s start with the myth of the virtuous woman: the fond belief that, if only women ran the world, all would be lovely. For my generation it was Thatcher who ripped the wool from our eyes on that one.
We learned, the hard way, that the reason that women so often looked the fluffier cuddlier option was that for most of human history they were kept at arm’s length from power and consequently had much less opportunity to do bad things.
With Thatcher on the Tory benches sat a relatively unsympathetic regiment of Conservative women: in the wider sphere the likes of Unity Mitford, who famously struck up a friendship with Hitler, and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, demonstrated the attraction some women had for the strong (male) leader.
Were these, though, exceptions? Not really. For Unity found sisterhood in many former suffragettes. In the women’s section of the British Union of Fascists, for example, which counted amongst its numbers former stalwart suffragettes such as Norah Elam or Mary Sophia Allen.
The signs were already there in Emmeline Pankhurst’s decision to wind up the suffragette movement – or at least put it on ice – for the duration of the First World War. There, too, in the re-purposing of chunks of the suffragette movement to the Order of the White Feather: a campaign to shame young men into fighting.
“Oh, we don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go”, was the chorus of “Your King and Country Want You (A Women’s Recruiting Song)”, in 1914.
Snap forward a century and women on the right is de rigueur. In Greece, women ran neo-fascist organisation Golden Dawn when the men were remanded in long-term custody. In France, the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front) is led by Marine Le Pen, while in Italy, up and coming neo-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia is also led by a woman: the young and photogenic Giorgia Meloni.
Britain, so far, has managed just Jayda Fransen for several years (to January 2019) as deputy leader of far-right group Britain First.
So women can be right as well as left? Big deal! Here though, two factors add significance to this rightward drift. First, is a conscious reaching out by far-right organisations to women, pushing an agenda that is superficially attractive, in that it puts women first, albeit not quite as feminism might have envisaged.
There, La Lega and other right-wing groups are projecting messages at women that mingle security and respect. Although it’s a very selective security: safeguarding “OUR” women. Not theirs.
As one Italian blogger, who writes on violence against women, tells me: “The fascists do not ... even pretend to be feminists.
“[They] use violence against women only as a propaganda tool to feed racism and fear of the black rapist.”
Beyond the overt racism lies a very lopsided view of women. Elsewhere, the right is making not-so-subtle appeals to Italian women in the form of financial reward for “doing their duty”: staying home and producing the domestic Italian workforce that will be needed when all the migrants leave.
My blogger again: “They talk about women as their property. None of this, of course, has anything to do with feminism. Right feminism does not exist.”
In Sunderland, an organisation called Justice for Women and Children has taken to the streets, demanding politicians acknowledge women’s concerns about sexual violence. Nothing extraordinary: but as women counter-protesters make clear, their rhetoric and far-right links are worrying.
Of course, they are not racist or fascist. Yes, they support women. But note the emphasis by leading light Sharon Binks: “it is about the rape of our women, the rape of our children and the establishment are doing nothing about it.” Does “our” mean local? Or is she here echoing the right in Italy, in Poland, which is also selective in terms of who deserves protection?
As for unsavoury links: the authorities dropped the ball when it came to grooming in Rotherham.
Others intervened, piggy-backing off the language of human rights. Friends to Justice for Women include Ukip’s Gerard Batten and Tommy Robinson, Ukip’s “grooming adviser”.
They are making hay with a narrative that is insular, tribal, yet reassuring. Key messages are “fear of the other” and “stranger danger”. Yet they are happy to promote “strong women”: one poster girl for the Italian right is a councillor who gifted pepper spray to her fellow (Lega) women – because of violence against women.
Add “concern”. One UK feminist splinter has made it their mission to warn of the trans menace. On the BBC just a fortnight ago, a leading member of this group explained how the biggest threat facing women today was “the transgender ideology”.
So I’m biased. Not entirely convinced that upholding the rights of around 10-15,000 trans women in the UK (their focus) will bring on the gender apocalypse: whereas a toxic mix of cuts, austerity and unsympathetic government just might.
A recent schism within this group shows how wrong this can go. They recruited “Mumsnetters”, scarcely radical feminists. Surprise! Many of these were happy to sup with the far-right Heritage Foundation. Cue rapid backpedalling by people relying on the old maxim: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.
But then across a swathe of issues, from trans rights, to sex work to surrogacy, many of these already align closely to the right. So perhaps more apt: “Lie with dogs: get fleas!”
Feminism is not fascist, but the far right is getting smarter at speaking to the concerns of women. They will not be defeated in the ivory towers of academia or within the commentariat.
To beat the fascists, we must learn from women in Poland and Italy and elsewhere on the continent: get out into the street. March! Demonstrate! But also involve yourself with local projects: connect outside the media bubble.
To their credit, there are UK feminists devoting significant energy to this work. But more are needed.
And it is vital that you look to your own belief systems to argue for inclusivity, tolerance, intersectionality: because if your own feminism starts out exclusive and rejects the rights of those who do agree with you, you may not be fascist. But you are doing much to prepare the ground for them.